Skip navigation

Worlds apart

When Chinese immigrants arrive here, life in their new city often appears strikingly familiar. But, as JOHN BARBER finds, 'invisible walls' prevent many newcomers from fully integrating into the mainstream.

Globe and Mail Update

''How many obnoxious Chinamen have you met, other than myself?'' Richard Ling asks, deliberately using the old racist epithet to drive home his point -- not only that he is obnoxious, a matter of pride to the outspoken Bay Street lawyer, but also that there are far too few Chinese Torontonians like him.

The typical spokesman for the Chinese community "is always the person who is non-confrontational and doesn't have a lot to say," Mr. Ling complains, adding that the mainstream establishment likes it that way. "They would rather look for King Chinaman the gatekeeper than deal with the rest of us as individuals."

But the result of the traditional quiescence, according to both Mr. Ling and several like-minded iconoclasts, is an anodyne image of the local Chinese community as universally successful, self-sufficient and settled down. In fact, he says, the "invisible walls" that confront all immigrant communities still separate local Chinese from the mainstream. And increasingly, he and other activists warn, such barriers disguise the reality of a community beset by serious challenges.

Most of the overseas capital that floated the buoyant immigration from pre-1997 Hong Kong has disappeared from Toronto and gone back to work in the new China, sucking purchasing power out of the local Chinese community and making times tough for the remaining immigrant entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, the educated mainland Chinese migrants who have recently replaced the departed Hong Kongers are falling into low-wage job ghettos as confining as any known since the days of the notorious head tax and exclusion acts, putting their degrees to work washing dishes and watching their dreams slip away. And it's time, the obnoxious minority contends, that more people started talking about it.

There was no such talk this side of the invisible wall when Geng Chaohui, an unemployed engineer with two young children, jumped from the balcony of his 12th-floor Scarborough apartment last summer in despair over his failure to find work in Canada.

Nor did the non-Chinese world notice when Tony Wong, freshman MPP from Markham, held a dinner to raise funds for the education of Mr. Geng's two daughters -- one three years old, one six months.

Although it raised $30,000, the event also served to remind that Mr. Wong is all alone in highlighting such issues: He's Ontario's only Chinese-Canadian MPP -- the only Chinese representative from Ontario sitting in any Canadian legislature, for that matter.

"At least I'm here," Mr. Wong says, acknowledging the difficulty of representing more than 400,000 citizens from the back benches of the governing Liberal Party. "There's a big difference between one and zero."

The same arithmetic occurs on the local level: Olivia Chow is the only person of Chinese descent among the 44 members of Toronto City Council, and Alex Chiu is alone among 12 councillors in Markham, where half the population is ethnic Chinese. There are no sitting Chinese politicians in either Richmond Hill or Mississauga, suburbs with heavy concentrations of ethnic Chinese citizens.

In comparison with other ethnic and visible-minority groups, the largest of them all -- with more than 400,000 members, making up 10 per cent of the total population of Greater Toronto -- is astoundingly underrepresented in local politics. Here, the walls are invisible but palpable.

The community's enduring political isolation partly reflects Chinese culture and the foreignness of Western political conventions, according to Ms. Chow. "There's a very distinct, Eastern-versus-Western division on what democracy and political culture is all about," she says.

One result is the community's resistance to practising the "identity politics" that has traditionally enabled minority groups to gain a share of power. Ms. Chow knows that well: She narrowly lost her bid to enter the House of Commons last June when she failed to carry the city's traditional Chinatown, the heart of the Trinity-Spadina riding, which voted solidly for Liberal incumbent Tony Ianno.

Ms. Chow blames her loss partly on support that Mr. Ianno enjoyed from conservative pro-Beijing community groups, claiming that they turned against her when she presided at a memorial event for victims of the Tiananmen massacre.

But ideology is not all that suppresses Chinese voices. Mr. Ling, who describes himself as an Attila the Hun right-winger but nonetheless admires Ms. Chow's mouthiness on behalf of socialist causes, expresses equal scorn for the "don't rock the boat" mentality typical of those who claim to represent the Chinese community. "Unless the Chinese community is able to produce captains of industry and finance, it will never be truly represented," says Mr. Ling, who came to Canada from Hong Kong as a 17-year-old student in the 1960s. But rather than producing such leaders, he adds, Toronto is driving them away.

For Mr. Ling, one "defining moment" occurred when he attempted to organize a fundraiser for former provincial Liberal Party leader Lyn McLeod on behalf of the most influential Hong Kong investors then residing in Toronto, only to be told that the leader would not attend and the party would dissociate itself from the effort.

"They were used to dealing with non-English-speaking restaurant owners," Mr. Ling says. "All of a sudden, they are confronted with this group of rich, educated Chinese. They couldn't understand it and preferred not to deal with it."

Investors, he adds, "go to places where people welcome them, not to where people shit on them."

Pushed away by their encounters with invisible walls and pulled back home by the lure of huge returns in mainland China, most of the Hong Kong investors who brought $2-billion a year to Toronto throughout the 1980s are now long gone, according to Mr. Ling.

And the Mandarin-speaking mainland immigrants who have replaced them, while educated, are poor. Recent immigrants of all ethnicities earn an average of 57 per cent of what native-born Torontonians do, the lowest share of any urban immigrant group in the country, according to a recent Statistics Canada study. They are better educated than ever before, but unlike immigrants of previous generations, according to Statscan and other researchers, recent newcomers are having a much harder time closing the yawning income gap.

As counsel to several international and Canadian banks serving the needs of the local Chinese community, Mr. Ling estimates that the average assets per household among Chinese migrants settling in Toronto has dropped to $50,000 from $2-million in the 1980s.

Typical of those who have left are the directors of Hong Kong's huge Shui On Property Group, who sold two large hotels in Toronto not long before building the landmark Xintiandi mixed-use complex in downtown Shanghai.

Affluent Chinese Canadians have a choice, according to Mr. Ling. "They can stay here, pay 54 per cent of their income in tax and remain hampered by the invisible door, or they can go back home to join their families and pay 20-per-cent tax."

As a patriotic Canadian who takes pride in once having berated Jean Chrétien in fluent French, Mr. Ling regrets that the choice is often easy. "At the risk of insulting other Chinese Canadians," he says, "I would say that our brightest and most entrepreneurial Chinese Canadians are not living and working in Canada today."

One of those most at risk of being insulted is one of Mr. Ling's clients, Henry Wu, owner of the Metropolitan Hotel on Chestnut Street and the newer SoHo Metropolitan on Wellington Street. As one Hong Kong investor who came to stay, Mr. Wu sees no invisible doors and questions the need for a unified Chinese voice in local affairs. "Ninety-eight per cent of the time, I see myself as a Canadian running a Canadian business and participating in the Toronto community," says Mr. Wu, who abandoned doctoral studies in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to run his family's hotel business in Toronto 11 years ago.

But he acknowledges that many ethnic Chinese operating businesses across North America are facing tough times. Of 20 Chinese friends with whom he attended university in North America, Mr. Wu says, he is the only one who remains here.

At the grassroots level, he says, the Chinese are seamlessly integrated into local society. "Are there as many business leaders who have successfully crossed over? That I'm not sure about."

By contrast, there is little doubt about what is happening to the most recent Chinese immigrants, mainlanders who have come here after years of study, often equipped with professional credentials, having left good jobs back home, and who are now struggling to survive at the lowest level of local society.

"I know some people who are professors, but they are working in bakeries or as labourers in the underground economy," says Mary Yang, host of a popular current-events show on Chinese-language Fairchild Radio. Everybody else in the local Chinese community, she adds, tells the same story about friends and relatives.

The Geng suicide struck a chord, she says, because so many people can identify with his despair. "There are a lot of frustrated immigrants in Toronto," she admits, counting herself one of the "lucky ones" who was able to bring her experience to bear in a new country.

To Kristyn Wong-Tam, president of the Toronto chapter of the Chinese Canadian National Council, the alienation and isolation experienced by the most recent immigrants raise unsettling memories of the fate of the earliest Chinese immigrants to Canada.

"They have three degrees from Shanghai, they're dentists, they're doctors, they're engineers or chemists and now they're washing dishes in Chinatown," she says. "They feel they've been sold this bill of goods." Promising human lives are being wasted in Toronto; non-English-speaking professionals, Ms. Wong-Tam says frankly, are "a failed class."

In that light, the election of Mr. Wong in Markham "is a really great encouragement for the whole Chinese society," Ms. Yang says. And for his part, the new MPP reports success in highlighting the inadequacy of official measures to help settle new immigrants in Canada -- albeit in a provincial caucus that has no jurisdiction over such matters. "Oftentimes caucus members are not averse to these ideas," Mr. Wong reports. "It's just that nobody has brought them up before."

Chinese Toronto is gradually turning its attention toward local affairs, Ms. Yang says, but electing more tribunes to office will "take time." Politics, Ms. Chow notes dryly, is not a career path Chinese parents recommend to their children.

"We don't do politics," Ms. Yang jokes, "we fundraise."

Just don't say that to Joseph Wong, whose tireless volunteer work has made him the most venerated leader of the Chinese community in Toronto. "I am not a fundraiser," the normally unflappable physician says, bristling at the mention of the word. "I am somebody who works to make change."

Nor will he admit even to being a "leader" -- let alone Mr. Ling's dreaded "King Chinaman" -- only someone who has "done enough community work to be recognized as somebody very active."

But none can deny the results of that activity, beginning with a decade-long campaign to make the United Way more ethnically inclusive and now focusing on the construction of the "culturally and linguistically appropriate" Yee Hong nursing homes.

The idea for Yee Hong originated 30 years ago when Dr. Wong first encountered Chinese seniors in downtown nursing homes, "left to wither and die in isolation," he says, many of whom "asked me to help them kill themselves." Today, Yee Hong operates four large-scale facilities throughout Greater Toronto and is diversifying to provide the same culturally appropriate care to seniors of different ethnicities.

As an activist, Dr. Wong helped to found the Chinese Canadian National Council 24 years ago in response to a CTV documentary, Campus Giveaway, that alleged foreign students from China were monopolizing prestigious professional faculties in Canadian universities -- even though none of those faculties admitted foreign students and all those identified as interlopers were, in fact, Canadian.

Today, he counts the apology his group elicited as a landmark in the history of the local Chinese community. "They totally admitted the mistake with no reservations," he says. "This is another reason I respect Canadians."

But who will fight for the same trophies today? Despite his own success, Dr. Wong still laments the lack of Chinese political representation, noting that the community "is not nearly as successful" as other ethnic groups in that respect. "This is where I would like to see some changes," he says.

So does Susan Eng, the Toronto-born Yee Hong board member who is better known from her 1990s career as the crusading (some would say obnoxious) chair of the Toronto Police Services Board.

To her, the community's failure to make any headway in its demands for head-tax reparations -- or even an apology for the tax and other racist policies historically directed at Chinese immigrants -- epitomizes its political impotence. "Why is it that the same people who started the CCNC 25 years ago have to come out now, dust off our placards and humiliate ourselves in public in order to deal with the head-tax issue?" she asks. "There's an entire generation of people not doing that. Why is that?"

One reason, of course, is that such assaults are historic. But another reason, according to Ms. Eng, is that new immigrants, especially the affluent ones, resist identification with their poverty-stricken predecessors. "It's really jarring for those of us who try to get support for issues that affect the Chinese community," Ms. Eng says. "The ethic isn't there. . . . I would argue that they are so capitalistic in the purest form they figure they can buy influence by showing up at fundraisers for politicians."

As both Ms. Eng and Ms. Wong-Tam point out, however, the Chinese community is glad to have the activists on standby. "The next time an Edmond Yu gets shot with a dozen bullets in the back of a [bus], they're going to want to see us there," Ms. Wong-Tam declares, referring to the 1997 police shooting of a mentally ill Chinese Canadian riding the TTC. "When something like that happens, you see the community galvanize. You see that these are not complacent people, they've been reading, they know when an injustice has taken place."

And although the local Chinese community is probably more diverse in its outlook and makeup than any other ethnic group in Toronto, its fundamental unity is assured. As Ms. Eng says, "It never washes off."

The Greater Toronto Area has the highest number of ethnic Chinese in Canada. They make up 10 per cent of the area's population

Ten or 15 years ago, it was rare to hear the Mandarin dialect spoken in Toronto. But according to 2001 census data, Mandarin speakers now outnumber Cantonese speakers.

Recommend this article? 0 votes

Back to top